“You Can’t Stop a Story Being Told”: Why the Story Counts in Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

Right now, someone is telling a story. Someone is always telling a story somewhere in the world. It seems to me that storytelling is a feat of magic, a holy act in every religion. We are sustained by stories; they nourish our culture and remind us of who we are and why. They are a way to make a connection, but with what exactly?

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is about a story, or rather, stories within stories. It focuses on a traveling show run by the incredible Doctor Parnassus, a mystic man with the power to show you your dreams. You face two choices in this dream, the easy and fun path, or the painstaking yet redeeming path. Unbeknownst to you, this choice is part of a larger game between Parnassus and Mr. Nick, a slily devil played by the incomparable Tom Waits. The two are constantly betting on how people will choose to end their story. The subject can either choose to do something moral or to repeat their sins. Their choice is the only thing which Nick and Parnassus cannot control. Although they can manipulate the appearance of the dream, they cannot choose for the subject. This is what makes the subject’s story so interesting, as you never know how their story will end.

Long before the events of the film, Parnassus was a monk visited by Nick. In typical Devil fashion, Nick wanted to test Parnassus’ faith in stories and the universe. According to Parnassus, the priests’ job is to tell the eternal story, the one which maintains the fabric of the universe. Telling the story is what holds everything together, and if the story were to ever stop being told, everything would cease to exist. Upon hearing this, Nick decides to test Parnassus’ religion by sucking up the voices of every priest in the monastery. When time keeps moving forward, regardless of the monks’ story, it seems like Nick has won. That is until Parnassus has a startling realization. Just because his story stopped does not mean that every story around the world has stopped. It does not matter if a story is destroyed, because there are always other people telling different stories to sustain the universe. It does not even matter what the subject of the story is, just that it is being shared.

This scene in Imaginarium implies that while stories come from our experiences in the world, they are also what cultivates the world in the first place. In other words, stories give us the ability to create and motivate the world. Storytelling is therefore the most powerful and human tool we have.

Nick and Parnassus’ are constantly returning to this dilemma about stories in the film. Nick wants to prove that people will sell their soul for an easier, albeit briefer, life. Parnassus wants to demonstrate that humans will persevere, and that like the story of the universe, they will continue to overcome obstacles. The two are stuck in a never-ending battle between good and evil, one where neither side ever wins. What makes this interesting is that by constantly betting against Parnassus, Nick simply proves his point. Their rivalry is a constant story, the kind which overlaps with other people’s lives and creates even more stories. By fighting against Parnassus, Nick continues to build the story rather than ending it. Nick isn’t interesting in winning, he just enjoys the game, similar to Parnassus, who just enjoys the story.

What makes this film’s discussion on stories even more impactful is that it unfortunately became a reflection of the film’s production. Heath Ledger passed away while working on Imaginarium, and director Terry Gilliam had no idea how to appropriately finish Ledger’s final project. What began as a film about stories ended up being an homage to the act of storytelling. Like Parnassus’ story, the film continued to tell its story, but with a few touching additions. Gilliam ended up casting Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell to play different versions of Ledger’s character while he was in Parnassus’ dream world. This became an amazing way to illustrate that Ledger’s character was untrustworthy, as he was not just two faced, but quadrupled.

Gilliam’s decision also became a testament to the film’s underlying message: stories and the people who populate them are foundational to our world. Even though people come and go, the story continues without us, but also because of us. Our lives are what moves the world forward, making us an intrinsic part in an ongoing narrative. Imaginarium tactfully demonstrates that although one story can end very abruptly, the stories around it will continue to grow and sustain.  

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